Nosferatu: History and Home Video Guide

Genesis of a Vampire

  • Nosferatu , the original onscreen Dracula tale, is one of the most iconic horror films ever
  • It survives in more versions, with more different sets of intertitles, than any other silent film
  • Beware: watching the wrong one can kill it more surely than a stake through the heart
  • Its entire history – along with every version and home video release – is now laid bare, to quote Orlok, like “a beautiful neck…”

Nosferatu – Tönt dies Wort Dich nicht an wie der mitternächtige Ruf eines Totenvogels. Hüte Dich es zu sagen, sonst verblassen die Bilder des Lebens zu Schatten, spukhafte Träume steigen aus dem Herzen und nähren sich von Deinem Blut.“

Nosferatu – Does this word not sound to thee like the midnight call of the Bird of Death? Take care in saying it, otherwise the images of life will fade to shadows, and ghostly dreams will rise from your heart and nourish themselves on your blood.”

Nosferatu (1922) Count Orlok by Kurt Goldzung

Nosferatu (1922) Count Orlok by Kurt Goldzung


Contents


Enter Count Orlok

“Ahh, there you are. Won’t you please come in? Don’t be frightened, child. If you’re sitting comfortably, I shall begin…”

When it comes to home video releases, Nosferatu rises time after time. You just can’t keep a bad Count down. Its latest resurrection in HD, courtesy of the British Film Institute (BFI), is their second kick at the can. They’ve updated their 2002 DVD but the film’s already very well served, both on DVD and Blu-ray – so was it worth it? If you can’t wait to find out, jump to my summary. But we have all night until the cock crows, so why rush? Before we get to that, consider the following:

Nosferatu (1922), alongside The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Metropolis (1927), is foremost among the ‘warhorses’ of silent cinema. That is to say, out of all silent films in circulation today it is one of the most…

  • …famous: replete with iconic imagery, it is often known to those who have never even seen a silent film.
  • …often screened: it’s always playing somewhere. A vampire’s not just for Halloween!
  • …often rescored and accompanied live. As well as respected, established silent film musicians and composers, seemingly every week anyone who can play an instrument takes it upon themselves to create a new score. From piano to choral and electronica to goth rock, the success of the results are a matter of personal taste. Or lack of it.
  • …often restored and reissued on home video. A mind boggling number of times in fact, as you’ll see below. From Betamax and VHS, via LaserDisc and DVD to Blu-ray and digital, Count Orlok’s seen ‘em all. He may be ancient but he does like to keep up with the times, you know.

As Lady Macbeth might say, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Nosferatu (1922) poster for live screening, 2012


A vampire’s tale: birth, death and resurrection

Nosferatu is the first true vampire film and though they both share the same source, it predates Dracula (1931) by nearly a decade. It’s a loose, unauthorised adaptation of the classic 1897 novel by Bram Stoker (1847–1912) and the first – and last – release by fledgling German outfit Prana-Film. At the helm was 6’11” (210 cm) tall, ex-World War I fighter pilot Friedrich Wilhelm ‘F. W.’ Murnau. Using unauthorised source material was nothing new for him: his earlier horror, Der Janus-Kopf (The Head of Janus, 1920), was a plagiarism of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Regardless, Murnau was already well on his way to becoming one of the best regarded directors of the silent era. Following Nosferatu he fashioned further masterpieces like The Last Laugh (1924); Faust (1926) and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), a winner of several awards at the first Oscars. Tragically, when only 42 years old and at the peak of his powers, Murnau died in a car accident shortly after completing his final film, Tabu (1931).

Friedrich Wilhelm 'F. W.' Murnau, German silent film director

F. W. Murnau (1888–1931), Nosferatu’s director

Though often overlooked in favour of Murnau, the real key player in the film’s creation was co-producer and production designer Albin Grau (1884–1971). He co-founded Prana-Film with businessman Enrico Dieckmann, initiated the project and appointed all the creative roles, including Murnau himself and noted fellow filmmaker and occultist Henrik Galeen (1881–1949), who penned the screenplay. Galeen’s shooting script, with annotations by Murnau, can be read here and here. As well as being a talented artist and architect, Grau was a lifelong follower of the occult and responsible for the look and feel of the entire project. He designed the sets and costumes and drew all the storyboards, posters and other promotional artwork. He even even wrote the occult symbol-laden letter seen in the film itself and executed the fine intertitle calligraphy. Phew. Though the film will always be synonymous with Murnau, it is undoubtedly Grau who casts the longest shadow over Nosferatu.

Albin Grau self portrait (1918) courtesy of Kantonsbibliothek Appenzell Ausserrhoden

Albin Grau (1884–1971), chief creative force behind Nosferatu. Self portrait (1918) courtesy of Kantonsbibliothek Appenzell Ausserrhoden.

The titular character himself was perfectly embodied by seasoned actor Max Schreck (1879–1936), whose name literally translates as “greatest fright” – you couldn’t make it up! Though he had many other stage and screen roles, he’s chiefly known nowadays for his turn as the creepy Count. Certainly the sheer brilliance of Nosferatu was no accident: many of the people involved both behind and in front of the camera went on to make some of the most enduring screen successes of Weimar era Germany. Nosferatu has been long acknowledged by critics and historians as an Expressionist masterpiece, alongside the likes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the aforementioned Metropolis. Now approaching its first century, the adventures of Orlok continue to be revered by critics and academics everywhere, and enjoyed by film fans alike.

Nosferatu (1922) Max Schreck as Count Orlok rising from his coffin, UK Eureka-Masters of Cinema Blu-ray

All rise. UK Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray


Land of the undead: filming locations

Filming took place over three months between JulyOctober 1921, with the interiors being built by Albin Grau at Jofa-Atelier studios, Berlin-Johannisthal. For the exteriors, rather than go to the trouble and expense of travelling over 1,000 miles to the real former Transylvania, now part of Romania, Murnau and his crew shot much closer to home. Neighbouring Slovakia doubled for „das Land der Diebe und Gespenster“ (“the land of thieves and ghosts”), with Orava Castle providing the setting for Orlok’s lair. The north German cities of Lübeck and Wismar stood in for Wisborg; the former’s Salzspeicher (salt warehouses) gave Orlok the perfect vantage point from which to spy on Ellen. Nosferatu expert Martin H. Larsen recently travelled to all three places and posted two fascinating series of then-and-now photographs: Nosferatour 2014 – Lübeck and Wismar and Nosferatour 2015 – Slovakia. Also recommended are Martin Votruba’s excellent webpages about the Slovakian locations, here and here. There’s also this 2017 Orava Castle video tour, though the otherwise excellent intro does repeat the old canard about there being only a sole surviving print.

Oravský Zámok (Orava Castle), Slovakia aka Count Orlok's home in Nosferatu (1922)

Oravský Zámok (Orava Castle), Slovakia aka Count Orlok’s home


Shapeshifter: changes to the novel

Nosferatu, or to go by its full title, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror), makes many changes to its source, Stoker’s Dracula:

  • Firstly the title was changed, to something a little more oblique. In case you’re wondering, “Nosferatu” is possibly derived from the archaic Romanian/Transylvanian words Nesuferitu or Necuratu. These translate as “the insufferable/repugnant one” or “the unclean spirit”. In other words, a demon or devil. Alternatively it could be from the Greek nosophoros, meaning “plague carrier”. Aww, rats. Well, whatever it is, it’s not good.
  • Count Dracula, with his outward appearance of being a courtly, cultured gentleman (further refined by his depiction in the 1920s stage play), here becomes Count Orlok – a fearful, feral, ratlike creature.
  • All other names are changed too: Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter, Mina becomes Ellen, Renfield: Knock and so on.
  • The story is more streamlined with many characters being dropped, such as Van Helsing, Dracula’s ‘brides’ and the leading couples’ friends. In their stead, a few new minor characters are added.
  • Unlike Dracula, Orlok does not create other vampires at will: he kills his victims outright. This causes the blame for the deaths to be shifted elsewhere.
  • Much of the action is transposed from 1890s Whitby in England to the fictitious German city of Wisborg in 1838. As for the rest of the film, the cast and crew never set foot in the real Transylvania.
  • Perhaps most importantly (I’ll avoid an outright spoiler, but…) in the original novel, Dracula’s ultimate fate is very different: sunlight only weakens him. Its effect on Orlok has since become an integral part of vampiric folklore.
  • Lastly, Nosferatu made two other profound changes to the story that weren’t assimilated into the accepted conventions of the bloodsucking undead. In restrospect, the course of 20th century vampire history may well have been more interesting if they had. In this take on the myth, religion offers neither succour nor protection against Orlok’s evil lust and the men are helpless and weak. They’re scared and unaware; completely powerless to prevent the terrible fate about to befall them. It is Ellen who is the strongest, most knowing character and it is she who proves to be the only worthy adversary of Count Orlok. Girl Power indeed.

These alterations were mainly made in an attempt to disguise Nosferatu’s origins and avoid accusations of plagiarism, but they weren’t enough. On its release Prana were sued by Stoker’s widow, Florence. The film had not been a financial success; failure to secure widespread distribution in their home country and the US had hurt Prana considerably. The ongoing litigation with Florence Stoker caused yet more more damage and by the time she eventually triumphed in July 1925, they had declared the company bankrupt. For more, see Nosferatu and the Public Domain, an excellent article detailing the court case and the film’s legal status. Florence was thus thwarted in securing the £5,000 she’d demanded in settlement, but wasn’t about to let it end there: instead she insisted on outright ownership of the film then, having obtained it, ordered that all copies be destroyed. She had never even watched it. Thankfully a few incomplete prints survived in safe hands and copies continued to be screened intermittently, especially after Florence’s death in 1937. Inexorably its reputation grew and those prints ultimately became the basis of all the fully restored versions we know today.

A tragic coda is that Prana originally planned to make nine more occult-themed films, with titles like Hollenträume (Dreams of Hell) and Der Sumpfteufel (The Swamp Devil) – imagine what we could have had!

Nosferatu (1922) Max Schreck as Count Orlok climbing the stairs, UK BFI Blu-ray

Up the stairs we go… UK BFI Blu-ray


Orlok’s legacy

Nosferatu’s cultural influence is inestimable and it’s the great-grandaddy of virtually every horror film that followed. It directly inspired a near-eponymous 1979 remake as well as Shadow of the Vampire (2000), in which the actor playing Count Orlok is an actual vampire, running amok behind the scenes during the making of the original 1922 film. Cartoons, comics, novels and even operas – both rock and regular – have been based on the the Count’s misadventures. He’s been converted to 3DReincarnated in Sound (coming soon) and right now there’s yet another remake/reimagining in the works. Orlok continues to fire the imaginations of artists, authors and filmmakers everywhere, and is showing no signs of slowing down in his unfathomably old age.

Grateful thanks to Aitam Bar-SagiDavid ShepardLokke Heiss, Martin H. Larsen, and Patrick Stanbury for help with this series of articles.

Any questions or suggestions? Post in the comments.


If you like this, you’ll love:

I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see this site’s About page.

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Silents, Please
Guest

My hat is off to you Brent – fantastic post! The amount of research done and time spent on this article is clear. Great, great job. Regarding pulldown patterns in the BDs. So, Eureka is converting 18fps to 24fps via a 1:1:2 ratio (i.e., frame pattern of 1233 4566 7899, etc …), but Kino is doing 1:2:1:2:1:2:3 + a deletion (i.e., frame pattern of 122 344 566 777 8 and so on)? Wow … just terribly botched, and strangely so, because repeating every third frame would be so much more simple. I like what you’ve written about the BFI BD… Read more »

Dave S.
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Dave S.

Thanks for such an informative web page!

The 4th March, 1922 première version was 1,967m and the 2005/6 Berriatúa restoration is 1,914m. So 53 meters of 35mm film still missing. At 18fps, I believe that works out to 1 minute and 30 seconds of missing footage. Does anyone know what we are missing? Are there any surviving scripts or other documentation on what is missing? Anything significant, or is it just trimmings off existing scenes?

Paul Bielatowicz
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Hi Brent, thanks so much for putting together such an in depth, thorough and fascinating read. I’m a musician interested in scoring for silent films. I’m currently writing a score for Nosferatu to be performed live with the movie later this year. I’m trying to get a definitive answer about which version of the film I can use without violating copyright. I’m planning a DVD release, so need to be careful not to infringe any copyright laws. Obviously I’ll be adding my own soundtrack, but am also planning on replacing all the text, inter titles and credits. Am I right… Read more »

Francis L.
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Francis L.

Quebec, Canada doesn’t seem to be happiest place for those wanting decent Blu-rays of Nosferatu and Chaplin films :'( but your work was very interesting in all its aspects! Keep up the good work

Steve
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Steve

This is an amazing review , I can’t thank you enough for such a extensive article about this classic movie . I have the MOC bluray and been thinking about importing the BFI as well . Any more thoughts about when they may release the updated bfi blu since there has been more work done in 2016 ? What is DCP ? Thanks again .

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